Anthony Gismondi: What it’s worth when Port earns vintage designation

Infrequent vintage declaration is a time-honoured event that is an integral part of the Portugual’s wine story.

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Last week Christian Seely, managing director of Quinta do Noval, announced the declaration of three exceptional vintage Ports from the 2021 vintage: Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port 2021, Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2021, and Quinta do Passadouro Vintage Port 2021.

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If it seems odd to be talking about vintage Port on the verge of summer, you are correct, but the infrequent vintage declaration is a time-honoured event that is an integral part of the Portugual’s wine story.

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In some ways, the fortified business had been the glue that held the Portuguese wine market together while producers revamped their thinking about the rest of their offerings. Today non-fortified wines are driving the bus as the world begins to embrace Portuguese wines on a much broader scale.

Only about one or two per cent of all Port produced is worthy of being called vintage  andthe reputation of a shipper is almost always measured by the quality of its offerings. Vintage Port is only made when the harvest is exceptional. Since the First World War, that is roughly about three industry-wide declarations per decade.

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There are strict controls when a vintage Port can be declared, as it is known in the trade. Although obvious, it must be from a single harvest and bottled between July 1 of the second year following harvest and June 30 of the third. Bottled samples are sent to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto with details of the amount of wine made from the grapes, the quantity of wine to be released,  and the proposed release date. Should Port’s governing body approve of the wine’s quality, the shipper is allowed to declare the vintage, but only if the company remains convinced the quality of the wine still merits the coveted vintage tag.

In its purest sense, vintage Port is the product of a single harvest, from chosen vineyards, in one climatically splendid growing season that, after fermentation and fortification, is only aged for approximately two years in wood. Unlike tawny and other wood-aged ports, vintage Port is bottled, unfiltered, and left to improve inside the bottle for decades.

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The magic is in knowing which years will go the distance. What may seem like a glorious harvest can still have shippers hesitating to declare a vintage, given that each declared year comes under intense scrutiny for decades.

Today’s wine aficionados comment on the relative qualities of declared vintages such as 1955, 1963, 1977, 2003 and down the road, 2011 and 2017. And should a particular shipper declare what turns out to be a weak vintage, the impact on its reputation can reach long into the future.

In the case of 2021, Seeley says: “A wet winter and regular rainfall in April fully replenished much-needed water levels in the soil. Unfortunately, early flowering in May was followed by a very hot month of June. July and August were mild and sunny, with no extreme heat or water stress that we have seen in recent years that permitted slow homogenous ripening of the grapes in excellent conditions.”

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The harvest began on Aug. 26 and was suspended for three days in early September due to rain but resumed in sunny weather and mild temperatures that permitted long, slow ripening through the finish on Oct. 8.

Several parcels of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and Sousão grapes arrived at the winery in excellent condition. The famed Nacional and various other old vine parcels were said to be exceptional. Seeley describes the vintage as one of “purity of the fruit and the elegance and balance are among the most striking characteristics of this lovely vintage year.”

If you need to mark 2021 for anything other than the pandemic, you might consider putting away a few bottles of 2021 vintage Port from Quinta do Noval to celebrate a decade or two, or even three, down the road.

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Weekend wine picks 

Garnet Valley Traditional Method Sparkling 2016, Garnet Valley, Summerland, Okanagan Valley 

$49.99 I 91/100

UPC: 626990468011

This is the first of what are sure to be many releases of sparkling wine from Garnet Valley Ranch in upper Summerland. It is a traditional method of sparkler mixing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that has spent an impressive 72 months on its lees. It opens with an apple almond nose courtesy of the aforementioned extended bottle aging. The palate is a mix of creamy brioche streaked with some oxidative notes and flavours of air-dried apple chips and wild desert sagebrush, all wrapped in citrus — a seriously sparkling wine for those who like to contemplate their bubble.

Meyer Pinot Noir 2022, Okanagan Valley

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$26.99 I 90/100

UPC: 00808755007172

Pinot noir fans can rejoice the bargain-priced Meyer Family Pinot Noir, a.k.a. the Okanagan Valley label, is a winner in 2022. At a modest 13.5 per cent alcohol, this juicy, cherry/raspberry-flavoured Pinot has everything you could want under $25. At less than 1 gram per litre of residual sugar, winemaker Chris Carson has worked his magic on this eminently drinkable and affordable Pinot Noir. The grapes enjoyed a long, dry autumn that gives the wine a ripeness that is hard to match in most years. Hand-picked from four vineyard sites located in Naramata, Osoyoos, Kaleden and Okanagan Falls, it was aged in neutral French oak barrels and puncheons to allow for some expansion while leaving no discernible oakyness. Ready to drink.

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Il Bastardo Sangiovese di Toscana 2021, Tuscany, Italy

$16.99 I 88/100

UPC: 875734003777

The Il Bastardo winery is located in the Rufina area of Tuscany, just 20 kilometres outside of Florence in the Sieve River Valley, an area thought to be the best for growing Sangiovese outside of the Classico zone. This wine remains pretty much what it has been for decades. An easy sipping spaghetti and pizza red that sells for a song. The colour is dark, the nose a mix of floral, black cherry flavours with just enough acid to keep it fresh. The Italian tannins keep it dry and earthy from front to back, and there is even a touch of mineral to gloss up the finish and back up the truck.

Pirramimma Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, McLaren Vale, South Australia, Australia

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$34.99 I 89/100

UPC: 9315785007085

Pirramimma is never a shy label, and it begins with big aromatics from what is an excellent McLaren Vale vintage. Look for violets and black fruit notes streaked with licorice and cedar. There is excellent structure and balance to keep this red in line through the finish. Still youthful with a modicum of sticky tannins. This briarish blackcurrant wine is drinkable now, or you could lay it away for three to five years. Grilled lamb or pork ribs would be the match at the moment.

Rocca delle Macie Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Tuscany, Italy

$49.99 I 92/100

UPC: 8002305009162

Rocca delle Macìe totals six square kilometres across six estates in Tuscany today. The Zingarelli family has made wine for over four decades in the Chianti Classico DOC. The Cabernet Sauvignon label joined the lineup in 2015 and was well-received. The style is savoury and sophisticated, the tannins silky and the fruit impressively red-black plum with complex streaks of tobacco, cedar and balsamic notes. It’s just beginning to gather itself and would be a perfect addition to a meaty pasta dish or T-Bone steak. The wine is fermented in concrete vats and aged 18 months in French barriques (50 per cent new), followed by some 20 months in a bottle.

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